Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
Sarazanmai: Reo and Mabu Volume 1
The two officers Reo and Mabu do everything together in the little Asakusa police box that doubles as their place of work and their home. Despite their differences, and Mabu's tendency to strip naked in order to cook even when talking to citizens who need help, the two work well together. When the two find an abandoned baby on a dish, they name her Sara and decide to raise her together. But can two men raise a child happily and healthily, even when they live in a police box?
The prequel manga Sarazanmai: Reo and Mabu debuted in 2018, well ahead of its anime counterpart, presumably as a way to drum up hype and introduce some of the ideas that the anime would eventually present. It introduces the characters Reo and Mabu, the police partners that would become the anime's sort-of antagonists, and Sara, the local idol who functions as a kind of Greek chorus for most of the story, this time as a baby. While the anime explores complex themes and relationships, this manga is little more than a fluffy diversion.
It all begins when Reo and Mabu, a pair of koban officers who live as well as work together in their little box, find a plate of pancakes on the ground. After Mabu tastes them, much to Reo's horror, he obsessively replicates their flavor. A civilian is able to point them to the cafe they came from, and on the way home, they encounter a baby lying on a dish. Unable to find her parents or a place able to take her, they adopt her themselves and name her “Sara”, the Japanese word for “dish.”
Each chapter is a loosely-connected vignette, designed mostly to explore Reo and Mabu's relationship to Sara and the nature of families. In real life, the two would never be able to keep her, since Japan restricts adoption to heterosexual married couples, but Kunihiko Ikuhara has never felt particularly restricted by reality. Sara gets heat rash, so Reo and Mabu enter a raffle hoping to win an air conditioner; the two encounter a teenage runaway trying to get back a hat from his mother that he dropped over the side of a bridge; after leaving Sara with a woman to chase a purse-snatcher, they wonder if she would be better off with a mother.
It's all quite sweet, though the ideas examined within it are along the same lines as most every “single dad” manga; the biggest difference here is the surreal nature of how they found her, and that there's two dads instead of one. There's little of the challenging themes that Ikuhara usually incorporates in his stories. Like Sarazanmai, it examines the nature of bonds, specifically paternal father-daughter ones, but here the bonds are solid and loving, while in the anime the bonds were tangled and stretched to the point of tenuousness.
This could very well be an intentional choice, showing a warm and solid non-nuclear family while in Sarazanmai the main characters feel confused and isolated, but it does make Reo and Mabu feel slight in comparison. It's looking to inspire warm fuzzies, not deep thought. I'm fine with this being cute and happy, but I longed for more foreshadowing or some kind of hint at Ikuhara's signature complex symbolic systems.
The most disappointing part is probably how Reo and Mabu's relationship is portrayed. The manga ran in the BL magazine RuTile, but there's hardly a whiff of anything greater than a working relationship. Sarazanmai is completely unambiguous about what they are to each other - they are in love, actual undeniable romantic love. That was what made their role in the show so poignant and heartbreaking. While I wasn't expecting anything particularly steamy, considering this is more about fatherhood than anything else, I was hoping for at least a glimpse of their passion, of who they were before, well, to say much more would be to spoil the show. There is little sense of any kind of heat or intimacy, physical or emotional. The only real indication of the nature of their relationship is that it did run in a BL magazine.
Still, it is nice getting a sense of who Reo and Mabu were before the onset of Sarazanmai. While Reo and Mabu could have gone for an odd couple approach, which would have fit their opposite character designs, it's a bit more subdued. Mabu is a touch more buttoned up and Reo a bit more prone to impulsivity and irresponsibility, but they're both devoted to their jobs as police officers and to raising Sara. However, Mabu's quirk more than makes up for possible stiffness - he loves to cook, but only does so naked. Luckily, manga artist Misaki Saitoh doesn't fear the male nipple.
Saitoh's art is fine, although it lacks the energy of character designer miggy's original design sketches. She gives Reo and Mabu a kind of rangy look, with long necks and prominent Adam's apples. Her locations are mostly spare and geometric, and more panels have blank backgrounds than not. The exception for this comes when the characters are in real-world locations such as the Azuma-bashi bridge or Sensoji temple, since the series is firmly set in Asakusa.
All in all, I don't feel like I wasted my time reading Sarazanmai: Reo and Mabu, but I don't think I would have missed out on anything if I had skipped it. It's a sweet little diversion, a nice way to spend a half hour or so if you like stories about parental bonds or goofy cop comedies. However, if you're going into this hoping for any greater insight about Sarazanmai's world, themes, or characters, you are guaranteed to be disappointed.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B-
+ Cute story about parenthood and family bonds
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